March 11, 2002

Colombian elections show gains for get-tough presidential hopeful

                 BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Results emerging Monday from weekend
                 congressional elections underscored the appeal of independent presidential
                 candidate Alvaro Uribe -- a harsh critic of leftist rebels -- and could help
                 propel him into Colombia's highest office in May.

                 Dozens of pro-Uribe candidates were elected to the congress on Sunday in voting
                 in which Colombia's two traditional parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, lost
                 seats but remained the first and second largest political forces in the legislature.

                 The Uribe allies are believed to now hold more than a fourth of the seats in the
                 102-member senate and some in the 166-member House of Representatives, after
                 more than 10 million Colombians voted despite fears of violence.

                 "Uribe is the most important political phenomenon in years in Colombia. His support
                 was critical for the candidates he backed," said Rafael Pardo, a former defense
                 minister elected Sunday to the senate after aligning himself with Uribe last month.

                 Although the ruling Conservative Party lost ground, the government is calling the
                 election a triumph of democracy over "terrorism" practiced by guerrillas and rival
                 right-wing paramilitary group battling U.S.-backed security forces in Colombia's
                 38-year war.

                 Rebels burned ballots in 15 towns, but fears of widespread sabotage by the
                 Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, did not materialize amid a
                 security operation involving 150,000 troops and police.

                 The Conservative Party's president, Carlos Holguin, resigned on Monday, taking the
                 fallout for a drop to about 10 percent of the seats in the congress, from 15 percent
                 in the last elections. The party's popularity has plummeted due to economic decline
                 and the unpopularity of peace policies during President Andres Pastrana's
                 government, which ends in August.

                 Pardo said Uribe's new base in the congress will help him counter claims by his
                 main opponent, Horacio Serpa of the Liberal Party that he would have difficulty
                 governing if elected.

                 Both Uribe and Serpa were claiming success Monday. But several longtime Liberal
                 politicians lost their seats, costing Serpa some of his support in the congress. The
                 Liberal party remained the largest force in the congress, however, with about 30
                 percent of the vote in each chamber.

                 Pollsters say Uribe's main appeal has been his rhetoric demanding a tougher military
                 response toward the FARC, a group whose unrelenting violence has alienated many
                 Colombians. The latest poll, conducted late last month, gave him nearly 60 percent
                 support, compared to 24 percent for Serpa.

                 Anger about the rebels may also be reflected in gains claimed Monday by the United
                 Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, the right-wing paramilitary group
                 waging a brutal counterinsurgency war against suspected rebel sympathizers.

                 In a message posted on the Internet, a top AUC commander, Salvatore Mancuso,
                 claimed his group had "greatly surpassed" its goal of placing sympathetic candidates
                 in 35 percent of the congress.

                 It was not possible to verify Mancuso's claim, which would give the outlawed
                 militia group an unprecedented foothold to pursue its agenda in Congress.
                 Candidates who received the group's support would have done so secretly, since
                 the AUC is an illegal organization.

                 The top vote-getter in the lower house of congress was hard-liner Jaime Canal, a
                 retired general who angrily stepped down two years ago, saying government
                 restrictions had hamstrung the military in the war on the rebels.

                 The elections were not a simple right-wing sweep. The presence in the senate of
                 former guerrilla leader Antonio Navarro Wolf, and left-leaning former Constitutional
                 Court president Carlos Gaviria could provide a counterbalance to hawks calling for
                 an all-out war on the guerrillas.

                  Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.